Archives for the month of: September, 2012

In I Am Legend there’s the perfectly and wonderfully accurate representation of flooded tunnels in an electricity-free, and thus pump-free post-apocalyptic New York:

Thanks to this image, I can now cobble together my Five Obstructions-style article about zombie movies that doesn’t give more than a passing mention of zombies. It’s the infrastructure that matters in zombie flicks.

Tom Tykwer movies have really great establishing shots (they also have gorgeous and effective overhead shots, something I’ll write about later). I want to base this claim in a quick look at the mostly unexceptional The Internationalfor which John Mahiffe, in addition to a mess of location-specific ADs, was the second unit director.

Perhaps the key to the establishing shots in The International is the way in which they make clear how people use the space on screen. One of the first images in the film

approximates a point-of-view shot from the seat of a car in the car park that takes up the bottom third of the image. It’s not exactly that point of view – it’s from slightly higher up – but it’s close enough to make the space and its use clear. That is to say, while there’s certainly an aestheticization going on – The International does its fair share of action-flick tourism – there’s also a sense of a world working outside the bounds of the film’s narrative. This sense that the world is more than a stage for the film’s conspiracy is quite clear in the Milan sequences. Take, for example, the investigation of Umberto Calvini’s assassination:

The wonderful thing about this shot is that the sequence that follows it seems to do almost nothing with all the information provided in the shot. Instead, Clive Owen’s Louis Salinger and Naomi Watts’s Eleanor Whitman look at the bullet holes and their local police ally chats to the other police on the site. The actual/official investigation occurs on the edge of the frame, untouched by the film. The film’s paranoid narrative offers one explanation – any investigation will be whitewash – but film language offers another. When Salinger and Whitman notice the trajectories don’t match, they take to the neighbouring building’s roof to see this:

Here Tykwer not only visualizes the “alternative point of view” that sees trajectories and connections that the on-site investigators can’t/won’t see, but it also shows the actual investigation site in a wide, long shot. There’s a world at work outside and beyond the film’s protagonists that isn’t concerned with playing antagonist to them. There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in our cinema, after all.

A non-generic treatment of a generic situation bears out my claim. Salinger, on foot, pursues The Real Shooter, who is in a car. But when Salinger gets to the traffic snarl where the Shooter is trapped, he faces too many choices:

In this establishing shot (of sorts) we get a sense of the life of the city. But we’re still in the realm of genre. Our gun-toting hero must now go from car to car, scaring the shit out of people who have nothing to do with the chase (that is, the film’s narrative) other than proximity. But that doesn’t happen in The International. Instead, as Salinger weaves through the cars, Tykwer goes to another kind of shot he loves, the overhead.

No one gets menaced. No one flees amid squealing tyres. In fact, the cars pull away at a reasonable speed, as if the light changed and they did what any driver would do. There’s a world out there and The International’s global financial chicanery just doesn’t enter into things that much. Salinger’s left alone, confused and the world keeps turning.

All in all, Tykwer gets more ideological mileage out of The International’s establishing shots than most films get out of their entire cinematic vocabulary, even in a middling effort.

Barring some multimillion dollar windfall for UC, I won’t be teaching in the College of Arts next year. They’ve already cut travel funding for permanent staff, but as contract staff I didn’t have access to that fund anyway. But there’s a teaching-adaptations conference in Tasmania in February. I hope to schedule some away-from-the-uni time to check out some of the most incredible (usually green) architecture around. It’s also the home of the great fictional Aussie Rules player Geoff Hayward. I might even spot a Tasmanian wolf and make some coin. So I sent out an abstract about how I teach She’s the Man,which is perhaps the worst movie I have taught more than once. Note: The CINE 101 students who argue for Vigil are wrong. On to the abstract.

“The worse it is the better: On teaching sub-par film adaptations”

One of the problems with teaching film adaptations of canonical works of literature is that such adaptations are often used to illustrate the literature rather than to study film in its own right. The canon may have expanded in our lifetime, but it still consists of a limited number of texts with a presumed shared greatness – and our students know this. My paper outlines an approach that asks students to locate the rules that underwrite the canon. Assigning “bad” adaptations is one way to help students query canon formation by demanding a definition and defense of the canon.

I argue that we can teach “bad” adaptations “backwards”: the lecturer argues for the greatness of the “bad” film over, for example, Shakespeare, forcing students to articulate exactly what makes Shakespeare worthy of canonization. Such an approach locates the process of canon formation in the classroom and places the responsibility in student hands.

I use the 2006 Twelfth Night adaptation She’s the Man as my example. She’s the Man will never be accused of committing greatness to film. Teaching it seems like masochism at best, and sadism at worst. Yet, as my paper shows, teaching a “bad” adaptation makes the questions – and answers – about contemporary political and cultural life that adapting canonical works makes possible much more readily accessible. That is to say, if we reimagine She’s the Man’s many failures as virtues, and Twelfth Night’s many virtues as failures,we can not only articulate the boundaries and functions of the canon, but we can also address the problems and politics of canon formation in a way that affirms the role that literature plays in cultural life.

It’s not every movie about academics that gets what the life is like. Take, for example, the truly execrable The Mirror Has Two Faces. I’m probably more guilty of redirecting my dreams of being a stand-up comic in the George CarlinRichard Pryor vein into my teaching style than most lecturers working in New Zealand. But even I find Barbara Streisand’s Rose Morgan impossible to stomach when it comes to her thoughts about how to teach or how to make people care about your research. It’s such a smug, self-satisfied idea to place at the centre of the film that, especially when you have Jeff Bridges’ near-boundless charm and Lauren Bacall’s gloriously withering disdain for others waiting around for a better movie to emerge.

However, when I went to The Bourne Legacy a while back with my friend Steve, I was shocked to hear a couple of tossed-off lines of dialog that captured the academic mind-set. After Aaron and Marta have escaped from the make-it-look-like-a-suicide set piece, Aaron starts going a little bonkers about his blues and greens. At this point, Steve leaned over and said to me, in trailer voice, “the thrilling adventures of a junkie in search of his next fix!” But then Weisz’s Marta puts Aaron in his place (I paraphrase): “You don’t know what I gave up for this! I couldn’t publish. I couldn’t conference. I couldn’t even talk about my research.” It’s that special recipe of well-founded pride in intellectual prowess and pursuits with a healthy glop of pettiness that sums up The Academic.